Can ancient Greek tragedy help to heal trauma?
An American director is using theatre to help people from different walks of life confront trauma and loss.
This article is a preview from the Winter 2016 edition of New Humanist. You can find out more and subscribe here.
One Monday afternoon in August, Bryan Doerries, a Brooklyn-based theatre director, launched into a full-throated rendition of a speech by Hephaestus, blacksmith to the gods of Olympus, in a scene from the classical tragedy Prometheus Bound. Doerries, who had translated the script from the ancient Greek, had played the hammer-wielding deity several times before. The venue, however, was a first: the visitors lounge at HMP Glenochil, a high security prison in Clackmannanshire, central Scotland.
Warehousing some 650 men, including several hundred sex offenders, HMP Glenochil overlooks a rugged escarpment that could, through narrowed eyes, just about pass as a proxy for the vertiginous cliffs towering over the wastelands of Scythia, where Prometheus was pinioned for eternity. The immediate backdrop to the performance was less apt: a children’s play area, decorated with a coral reef-themed mural of sea turtles, jellyfish and tropical fish.
Nevertheless, the audience of about 30 offenders, clad in uniform red sweatshirts and seated in chairs arranged in a wide crescent, watched in studious silence, surveyed in turn by half a dozen prison officers. The prisoners’ faces were hard to read. Some had committed crimes so grave that there was no fixed date for their release.
Doerries, who is 40, was accompanied by actors Pauline Knowles and Richard Conlon to recite scenes from the play. Attributed to Aeschylus, it depicts the terrible vengeance wrought by Zeus on Prometheus for giving humans the gift of fire. Conflicted over his task of shackling the still defiant trickster-god to a rock face, Hephaestus laments his old friend’s fate even as he pounds the nails deep.
“Though you may struggle, you will never break these bonds and will remain here in this godforsaken place, against your will, for the rest of Time,” Doerries declared, his voice rising. “Minutes will seem like hours, hours like days, days like years… you will cry out in vain, begging for an end to the endless suffering.”
For Doerries, performing at a Scottish prison was a foray into new, though not entirely unfamiliar, territory. A self-proclaimed evangelist for the cathartic power of classical drama, he has made it his mission to harness Greek tragedies to help communities confront trauma and loss, whether they be US army veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, corrections officers at America’s supermax prisons, people struggling with addictions, the homeless, hospice nurses, cancer patients or guards at the US detention centre at Guantanamo Bay. The results have been remarkable, with the visceral power of the performances temporarily dissolving rigid hierarchies, and allowing audience members to find a voice for emotions they are usually forced to suppress in real life.
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After the trio’s vocal-cord-shredding performance, Doerries opened the floor for discussion. “In spite of the fact this play was written 2,500 years ago, what spoke to you as truthful?” he asked. “What did you recognise?”
A wiry man with dark hair named Ian, serving a 17-year sentence for murder, said he had been struck by Hephaestus’s reference to the concertina-like quality of time.
“In prison a day can be a very long time, and a month can be a short time,” he said. “You ruminate on things, you go through different periods of blaming others for your predicament. These are the kinds of mental battles you have to fight – the battles of the mind and heart.”
Identifying with the exiled god – one of the most iconic martyrs of all time – a heavy-set, middle-aged prisoner called out from the audience in a thick Glaswegian accent: “Prometheus’s sent to the end of the world. Me coming from central Glasgow felt exactly the same way.”
While Doerries acknowledges that simply watching the tragedies is not a panacea, the soul-baring post-play discussions can inspire individuals to begin to confront long-buried pain, perhaps by speaking openly to spouses for the first time, seeking therapy or checking into alcohol or substance abuse programmes. “We’ve even heard of suicides that were averted when people came forward after performances and revealed their plans to loved ones or friends,” Doerries writes in his new book, The Theater of War: What ancient Greek tragedies can teach us today.
Though the book focuses on Doerries’ experiences in the US, it speaks equally to contemporary Britain, where mental health services are buckling under the sheer weight of demand. Among the most common problems are depression and anxiety – conditions often symptomatic of unresolved trauma, frequently dating back to childhood. The over-stretched and under-funded NHS has little to offer beyond limited sessions of one-on-one talk therapy and medication, with prescriptions of antidepressants doubling in the past decade. While the talk-and-drugs combination can sometimes help, new thinking is required to put the country on a path to greater wellness.
In the Greek polis, the works of the tragic poets enabled a visceral, collective confrontation with potentially dangerous emotions, purifying them of their toxicity. In contemporary culture, where social life is increasingly mediated by the glowing rectangles of smartphone screens, few equivalent spaces exist for people to come together to bear witness to each other’s pain. By learning from the Greeks, Doerries believes we can embark on a more systematic, communal approach to soothing modern-day psychic ills. “We see ourselves as the widest end of the funnel,” Doerries says. “We open things up and people can find myriad paths to hope and healing.”
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Judged on his CV, Doerries might not seem like an obvious candidate to persuade cynical prisoners, corrections officers or battle-hardened combat veterans to reveal their secret vulnerabilities. A lifelong lover of words, Doerries grew up in Virginia, then attended Kenyon College, a small liberal arts college in rural Ohio, where he learned ancient Greek in class, and Hebrew in his spare time. Slogging through Plato, Euripides and the Homeric epics taught him a lot about the ancient world, but it was only when he encountered tragedy in his own life that he grasped the full force of the tragedies’ redemptive, numinous power.
In his mid-twenties, Doerries lost his 22-year-old girlfriend Laura Rothenberg, who died after a lifelong struggle with cystic fibrosis – a disease Doerries describes as more intelligently cruel than anything mankind, for all its insatiable lust for violence, could ever devise. In the depth of his own grief and isolation, Doerries read the work of Athenian poets with new eyes.
In February 2007, he read a story in the Washington Post documenting appalling conditions in the Walter Reed military hospital, overwhelmed by soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, wounded in both body and soul. He wondered if he could make the balm he had found in the plays available to veterans. Not long afterwards, he contacted a captain in the US Marines, who invited him to present at a Combat Stress Conference in San Diego. Doerries marshalled four New York actors to present scenes he had translated from Sophocles’ Ajax in a Hyatt ballroom.
His choice was deliberate – and risky. A Greek hero, Ajax sinks into despair near the end of the Trojan war after losing his close friend Achilles. In a berserk rage, Ajax makes a failed attempt to murder his own commanders, blindly massacres a flock of sheep and goats, then falls on his own sword, ignoring the anguished pleas of his wife, Tecmessa. Visibly moved, the audience of 400 marines and spouses gave a standing ovation, before erupting into highly-charged exchanges, venting their experiences of the impact of war on husbands and the dilemmas of leadership in rhetoric so eloquent that it almost seemed to Doerries as if Sophocles himself was speaking through the audience. It was only afterwards that Doerries learned that three generals had been present – yet rank-and-file marines had felt empowered to speak. Since then, Doerries has performed Ajax at more than 300 US military bases.
“The military is generally a top-down hierarchy. Performing the plays creates a leaderless environment,” he explains. “For 45 minutes to an hour, after one of our performances, the hierarchy dissolves, and a lance corporal or a private can speak the truth of his or her experience in front of the highest-ranking generals.”
Staging the plays also challenged what Doerries thought he knew about Greek tragedy. After one performance of Ajax, he asked the military audience why they thought Sophocles, an Athenian general, had written the play. A young soldier raised his hand and said: “He wrote it to boost morale.” At first Doerries was puzzled – what could be morale-boosting about seeing a revered warrior come utterly unglued?
“It’s the truth,” the soldier replied, surrounded by a sea of green uniforms. “And we’re all watching it together.”
At college, Doerries had learned that Greek tragedy was infused with a quintessentially bleak view of the human condition, the futile struggles of protagonists crushed by fate illustrating man’s powerlessness in the face of irresistible external forces. The soldier’s statement crystallised a new realisation: the real significance of the tragedy lies not in what happens on the stage, but in the change that takes place in the audience. “For me, that was a huge lesson,” Doerries says. “I thought tragedy was about pessimism, that we hardly have any possibility of escaping fate. Maybe tragedy is about waking us up to the possibility of making a choice before it’s too late.”
The successes with US military opened new avenues, and Doerries’ Outside the Wire company has performed a range of Greek plays to audiences as diverse as Harvard Medical School students grappling with dilemmas around end-of-life care, and survivors of a devastating tornado that tore through Joplin, Missouri, where Doerries staged Stephen Mitchell’s translation of Book of Job, the parable of Biblical suffering. In August, he presented scenes from Ajax at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, putting on the performance at HMP Glenochil the following day.
A month later, on 17 September, Outside the Wire returned to Missouri, this time to the town of Ferguson, where riots broke out after a white policeman shot and killed Michael Brown, an 18-year-old black man, in August 2014. Brown’s body was left in the street for hours. Before a diverse audience, Doerries directed scenes from Antigone in Ferguson, adapted from a Sophocles play exploring what happens when the title character is told she cannot bury her brother. The chorus featured members of the St Louis Metropolitan Police Choir. The four-actor production included Reg E Cathey, who starred in The Wire, and Gloria Reuben, known for her role in ER. Other celebrities who have rallied to Doerries’ cause include Martin Sheen, Jesse Eisenberg and Jake Gyllenhaal.
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While Doerries’ work shows the transformation that tragedy can unleash in an audience, there is growing interest among psychotherapists in what happens when trauma survivors take to the stage themselves. The therapeutic potential of drama has a rich pedigree, but the approach has gained new significance amid a broader recognition that the traditional model of one-on-one talk therapy often doesn’t work. A vanguard of therapists and psychiatrists emphasise that trauma is not all in the mind, but lives on in the body through intense bodily sensations: chest-crushing despair, gut-twisting anxiety or hot flashes of rage. By working with these deeply felt physical feelings, therapists are finding new ways to help patients release the corrosive emotional residue of past traumas.
One of the most passionate advocates for this emerging paradigm is Dr Bessel van der Kolk, a leading trauma psychiatrist in the US, who devotes a section in his new book The Body Keeps the Score to the healing power of drama. “As a culture, we’re trained to cut ourselves off from the truth of what we’re feeling,” van der Kolk writes. “Love and hate, aggression and surrender, loyalty and betrayal are the stuff of theatre and the stuff of trauma.”
Though there is little clinical research on the impact of collective ceremonies on the mind and brain, van der Kolk cites the work of various US theatre companies working with inner-city high-school students or young offenders to show how drama can help withdrawn or aggressive teenagers gradually learn new ways of relating.
In Britain, similar groups are also building on the power of acting to channel raw emotional energy in constructive ways. A growing number involve military veterans, including the Combat Veterans Players’ Company, which stages professional-standard productions of Shakespeare, and the Coming Home project in the Welsh Mental Health Arts Festival. Other related theatre projects include the 2BScene performance project at the Blue Elephant Theatre in Camberwell, south London, which aims to break down stigma around mental health, and the Stepping Stone Theatre For Mental Health in Lincolnshire.
The performance of Prometheus Bound at HMP Glenochil opened up a vigorous discussion, drawing in prison officers as well as their charges. In the play, Prometheus bellows spittle-flecked curses at Zeus, rejecting the advice of a succession of deities who try to persuade him to strike a less belligerent tone. A seasoned prison officer named Chris told the audience how Prometheus’s self-defeating defiance reminded him of many inmates he had encountered in his 30-year career. “I’ve seen people refuse to admit the truth, who are just battling for the sake of battling,” he said. “If Prometheus had taken a different path, maybe it would have been different for him as well.”
A bald prisoner with heavy glasses drew parallels between the deities who interceded with Prometheus and relatives visiting HMP Glenochil. “They’ll go through phases. Being angry with you for what you did, and of being more supportive,” he said. “Their love doesn’t change because of the bars.”
More prisoners spoke, before Doerries, mindful of time, asked them about the end of the play, when Zeus – tiring of Prometheus’s raving – sends a divine whirlwind that rends the cliff asunder and entombs the fire-stealer beneath an impenetrable heap of rock. “Who wins?” he asked.
Ian, the prisoner serving a murder sentence, said: “Nobody wins – he’s created that through his stubbornness. He’s dug in deep. The destruction is of his own making.”
Chris, the prison officer, nodded, perhaps sensing that the Promethean impulse to defy authority at all costs had resonated with some in the room.
“Some people may be thinking, ‘good on him’’,’ he said. “I was with a prisoner’s mother for two and a half hours last week. He’d committed another offence and come back in, and she was crying, angry, laughing and hysterical. For her, this was the worst thing that could happen in the world.”
Doerries summed up. “If you related to anything that’s been said in the last 90 minutes – know you’re not alone in this room, as evidenced by the comments. You’re not alone across the country, and across the world.”
He paused, and delivered the message at the heart of his work: “Most important of all, what we came here to say is that you’re not alone across time.”
Afterwards, the men milled around in the lounge for a few minutes, some taking a moment to look at the hilltops rising beyond fences topped with coils of barbed wire. Then the officers began ushering them back onto the wings.